It’s going to be a good Christmas for Curt and Martha Van Inwegen.
Less than a year after their Atascadero company, Life Elements, launched a buzz-worthy new line of body care products, they’ve experienced record sales, glowing customer reviews and mentions in Marie Claire magazine and sites including Bustle, Fast Company and Refinery29.
The company’s CBD & Honey Collection, featuring hemp-derived cannabidol, “has launched us to a new level for sure,” Martha Van Inwegen wrote in an email.
In about a decade, Life Element has gone from a hobby business run out of the couple’s garage to a rapidly growing company whose products — which include honey-infused healing sticks, lip balms, bath bombs and sugar scrubs — sold in more than 500 brick-and-mortar stores across the United States and Canada. They’re also popular sellers with online retail sites such as Amazon, The Grommet and Vitacost.
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“All the products we sell, Martha created,” Life Elements CEO Curt Van Inwegen said. “We don’t need polls. We don’t need questionnaires. She comes up with an idea and she makes it.”
In other words, he joked, “Martha likes to jump off of cliffs, and I catch her.”
How they started
The Van Inwegens moved to Atascadero from San Diego in 2004 and launched Life Elements out of their home two years later. Both left behind high-powered careers — Curt in digital marketing, Martha in tech — to focus on the business as it evolved.
Martha Van Inwegen said the decision to launch a body care company was inspired in part by her memories of growing up in an impoverished village in Mexico.
“My grandmother used to make everything for us,” including herbal salves and tinctures, recalled Van Inwegen, who helped her grandparents gather ingredients from their garden for those medicines. “It always fascinated me.”
“The first line I created was an all-natural product for couples,” Van Inwegen said of the so-called “intimacy toilette” designed to be “safe for everywhere on your body.” She called her creation Tela de Amor, Spanish for “towel of love.”
Rebranded as Action Wipes in 2008, the natural, alcohol-free body wipes — now marketed as an easy “InstaShower” for athletes, outdoor enthusiasts and Burning Man attendees — are among Life Elements’ best sellers. High-profile fans include mixed martial artist Nick Diaz, polar adventurer Eric Larson and wildlife filmmaker Bob Poole.
Firefighters, who use Action Wipes to clean soot, debris and carcinogenic substances from their skin after battling blazes, have also embraced the product, Curt Van Inwegen said, noting it was the first body wipe on the market to be verified by the Environment Working Group (EWG), which tracks chemical safety in consumer products.
Life Elements serves more than 500 urban and wildland fire departments across the United States, Canada, Ireland and the United States, Van Inwegen said.
Other top sellers were inspired by Martha Van Inwegen’s love of beekeeping. She introduced a honey-infused skincare stick and lip balms in 2013 as part of her now-shuttered TheraBee product line; a body oil and sugar scrub came out in 2017.
Now one of Life Elements’ most popular products, the Healing Honey Stick promises “salve-ation from dry skin, burns, minor wounds and hurt feelings,” according to the company’s website. Like all of Life Elements’ bee-based goods, it features honey sourced from Southern California beekeepers, Curt Van Inwegen said.
All of the company’s products are manufactured in the United States. Action Wipes are formulated in the Bay Area and assembled in Southern California, Van Inwegen said. while all other products are handcrafted in small batches at the Atascadero production facility.
What is CBD?
It was Martha Van Inwegen’s daughter, photographer Bettina Chavez, who suggested that Life Elements expand its emphasis on natural healing by developing a CBD product line.
“She was able to replace prescription medications for anxiety with CBD-based products,” Curt Van Inwegen wrote in an email, which “really opened our eyes to the natural benefits of CBD.”
A naturally occurring, non-psychoactive chemical compound found in cannabis, CBD is gaining popularity among health enthusiasts who say it eases stress, inflammation and pain. Research suggests it could be used to treat ailments such as arthritis, insomnia and chronic pain; the U.S. Food and Drug Administration in June approved a CBD drug to treat severe epilepsy.
Unlike THC, CBD won’t get you high, the World Health Organization reported in February. And, the organization said, CBD has no potential for dependence or abuse.
CBD is legal in all 50 states to varying degrees. The 2018 Farm Bill, which President Donald Trump signed into law Thursday, legalizes hemp production nationwide — a huge boost for companies like Life Elements that use hemp-derived CBD.
Launched in February, the CBD & Honey Collection has been gaining traction among millennials, thanks in part to online buzz. “The press that we’ve received is phenomenal,” Curt Van Inwegen said.
Van Inwegen said that millennials are drawn to Life Elements’ emphasis on natural, cruelty-free ingredients, all sourced from the United States. (Some, but not all, ingredients are certified organic, he said.) The company plans to introduce a vegan product line in 2019.
“They don’t want antibiotics in their meat. They don’t want chemicals in their body care,” Van Inwegen said of younger customers. “It’s worth it to them to start healthy and continue their lives that way.”
Cure for aches and pains
But Life Elements’ core customer base remains what the Van Inwegens call “the rose gardener segment” of the market — older folks coping with a lifetime of aches and pains.
“We are locked solid with the baby boomers. That’s who we’re really focusing on,” said Curt Van Inwegen, noting that Life Elements customers average in age from 47 to 65. “They’re using (these products) not because it’s trendy (but because) it’s important to their lives.”
Life Elements’ CBD-laden Ache and Pain Relief stick and CBD Bath Bombs are among the company’s fastest sellers.
Touted as soothing everything from sore muscles to dry skin, the bath bombs come in three different strengths — 50, 100 or 200 milligrams of CBD. (There’s even a pine-scented version marketed at men, inspired by Curt Van Inwegen’s experiences exploring natural hot springs in Idaho.)
“We just can’t make enough bath bombs,” Martha Van Inwegen said.
According to Curt Van Inwegen, there’s no question that the CBD & Honey Collection has contributed to the bottom line at Life Elements, which has received support from the city of Atascadero and the Cal Poly Center for Innovation and Entrepreneurship.
“We have more than doubled our revenues from last year,” Van Inwegen said, although he wouldn’t disclose exact figures. “We have experienced almost 150 percent growth over 2017.”
A growing company
That’s not the only way Life Elements is expanding.
Since the summer, the company, once staffed by just Curt and Martha, has hired two full-time employees — one to help with production, the other to handle order fulfillment and warehousing — as well as “a bunch of seasonal help,” Curt Van Inwegen said.
Life Elements, which moved to a commercial space in Atascadero in 2017, is also upping its physical footprint. The company, which currently occupies about 1,500 square feet, plans to add 750 more square feet in 2019.
According to Martha Van Inwegen, the greatest indicators of Life Elements’ success are the stories customers share about their experiences using the company’s products.
In a May 21 product review, for example, Faith Greenawalt described how she used Life Elements’ Healing Honey Stick to treat a severe sunburn. “Not only did it soothe the intense pain of my peeling and dry skin on my shoulders and neck but it (also) formed a healing mask on my forehead lips and nose,” she wrote. “I’ve carried the honey stick with me everywhere I go since that day.”
Another Life Elements customer, who identified himself as Tycer, called the Ache and Pain Relief stick a “crazy great product” that he’s loaned to several friends to treat everything from acute neck pain to a bad skin rash. “Buy several, you’ll want to share,” he wrote in his Feb. 23 review.
“We get these incredible testimonies that are just tear-jerkers,” Van Inwegen said. “I cry because I’m thinking, ‘Oh my god, I created this.’ ”
Where to buy
Life Elements products are sold at General Store Paso Robles, The Hive in Arroyo Grande, Soto’s True Earth Market in Cambria and East Well Being & Tea, Len Collective and SLO Wellness Center in San Luis Obispo. Action Wipes can be purchased at The Mountain Air and SLO Camp ‘N’ Pack in San Luis Obispo.
They can also be purchased via the Life Elements website, lifeelements.com.